Fourteen-time NHRA Funny Car World Champion John Force addressed the media yesterday for the first time since the March 23rd death of teammate Eric Medlen in a testing crash in Gainesville, Florida. Force said he hopes to return his team to action at this weekend's SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas, but that he will reserve final judgement until after a new cockpit layout can be tested later today.
“We plan on going to Vegas,” he said, “but we have some testing to do.”
Force said eyewitness accounts of the crash and an exhaustive post-crash analysis lead him to believe that a punctured tire led to the fatal incident. He said the tire was examined and reconstructed by Goodyear, and, “I’ve got a statement here from Goodyear, (that) there was a puncture in the tire. Which means the tire went flat, then came apart. I assume that we ran over something, not that the tire was defective. Part of the tire was gone, which caused the car to drop, lift, drop, lift, from one side to the other.”
Biomedical research scientist and auto racing safety consultant John Melvin addressed the injuries that took Medlen’s life, explaining that a large portion of tire separated from the wheel at speed, creating a violent, side-to-side shake that sent an estimated 20 to 30 tons of sideways force through the car, and into the driver.
“I've been involved in racing safety since 1992, and things like this have never been seen in any kind of motorsport,” Melvin said. “The only comparison they could make was a helicopter in the military when a blade came off. The tire shake and the tire failure -- losing part of the tire -- caused extreme shaking. As far as we can tell, his head was shaken side-to-side so violently that it terribly injured his brain.”
Melvin compared Medlen’s injuries to an extreme case of Shaken Baby Syndrome, stressing that his brain was damaged by rapid oscillation, rather than by contact with the wall.
“There wasn't a single-point impact involved,” he said. “It was a relatively high-frequency attack to the brain. We're going to study this to find out exactly why the injuries occurred, and what we can do to solve it.”
As a result of the crash, Force said major changes are being made to all his team’s racecars.
"We cut the roll cages off of six cars, actually seven, and widened them,” he said. “We were able to put mountings in to triple the head protection on both sides of the driver. We changed the seat belts to (a seven-point system), and (modified) the locations where we mount them. We have R3 neck restraints that not only will protect you in frontal motion and reverse motion, but side to side. The problem is, there's no room to add the amount of padding you need.
“I don't know if it's drivable with what we've done,” cautioned Force. “Maybe (we’ve done) too much. We need to create a situation of tire shake (to test it). If we can do that, I'll know if I will be able to see with what we've done. You can't just make a big opening for the head, because then you have no protection.
“My team is on its way to Vegas, they should be there by now. All of the changes…will be installed in the morning so I can get in the seat (Wednesday).”
Force said the modifications will require a change of attitude on his part, as well.
“I was a lot like (Dale) Earnhardt; old school,” he said. “Even when he was injured, you couldn't get me to put on a HANS device, because I was uncomfortable. But I just spent the last three days in Indy, walking around the parking lot wearing this stuff, because I'm going to make myself get used to it.
“I got in the car and told Coil, `I'm so miserable. I can't even move. How can I drive this car?’ Coil said, `Do you want a championship, or do you want to be safe? You have to learn how to drive this car so you're safe, and then we'll address the championship.’ I don't care if it costs me a race,” said Force. “I'm going to wear it, wear it, wear it, wear it until I make myself like it, because I have no option.”
NHRA President Graham Light said the sanctioning body has taken take the unprecedented step of allowing Force to test the new cockpit configuration today at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway; a move that technically violates NHRA’s seven-day “no-test policy” for national events. Light explained his decision to allow the test, saying, “John is not testing the performance of het car. They made some significant changes that we all want to learn from. Under those very rare circumstances, we allowed John to make a 300-foot pass. There will be no data gathered. (NHRA Director of Top Fuel & Funny Car Racing) Dan Olson will be there to make sure the data recorder is not connected.
“We felt that under the circumstances, it was the right thing to do. Yes, it is in violation of our testing policy. Again, it's the right thing to do.
Force spoke at length about the emotional toll taken by Medlen’s death, saying, “We're getting by one day at a time. We have a very strong religious background. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to take it one step at a time. That's the only way we can find the peace. The loss and grief seem to get worse every day, but we're doing the very best we can to deal with it. I thought it would get better when I got back to California. But being honest, it got worse. I need to get to a racetrack. I need to get out there and do what I do. That's the only way I'm going to get well.”
Medlen’s father, John, who also served as his son’s crewchief, said of the past three weeks, “I wish there was a word to describe what our emotions are. There's nothing in my vocabulary that can describe the level of grief, all the emotions that would involve a circumstance like this. I can see Eric talking to us and watching us. He would say, `Get back out there and race, guys.’ That's what he did. That's what he loved to do. He loved that racecar. He loved racing.
”However, he would also be saying, `Make sure the cars are safe, Dad.’ Once the cars are safe, he wouldn't question it. He'd get in and go. We're doing everything we can… to send the guys out there with a safer racecar, and we're going to keep right on going.
“He would be very disappointed in us if we just tucked our tail under and continued on.”
Force agreed, saying, “If I didn't go back, then I failed Eric. I always believed these cars were safe. I promised these kids they were, because I've driven them for over 30 years. I've been through every type of crash you can imagine. (But when) you put your child in there, it's hard.
”Robert is mad at me because why didn't I allow him to race in Houston when he was in the points lead. Ashley is mad because I'm debating Vegas with her. We owe it to protect the drivers, and we owe it to protect our children. So I'm weighed between being a father and an owner that says, `You take that chance.’
“I have to explain it to my wife,” said Force. “She took all my kids out of the country for a week. Hell, I didn't know if she was going to bring 'em back. When Ashley came back yesterday, she was still aggravated at me. But I don't care if she's aggravated. When I know it's right, then we'll make the decision for Vegas. But we're not going to know until we get there.”
Ashley Force, who currently stands 13th in NHRA Funny Car points, said she understands her father’s conflicted emotions.
“I'm not at all aggravated at my dad,” she said. “It's not a situation that any of us have ever been in. We've lost other good friends, (but) this has hit so close to home because Eric is our family. The over-protectiveness that Dad has, I feel toward my sisters. But you have to let people decide (for themselves). Now that we've had a few weeks, we're getting through it. Personally, I did a lot of thinking. I thought, `Do I love racing enough to climb back in the car?’ I can't be scared in the car. I can't get in it thinking that something is going to happen to me. After doing a lot of thinking, I came back and said, `I still do love racing.’
“If I were to quit, then the last 24 years of my life would mean nothing,” she said. “I don't think that's the path I want to take. I want to get back in that car. I want to do it.”
John Force added, “I'd be a piece of shit if I ever quit. I'm just going to keep fighting this fight. We may never win a race again, but we will continue to do it. And John Medlen will be right in the middle of all of this, helping us grow this organization. We will not stop here. We will not let this thing just go away.”
Force stressed that his team will continue to compete on the NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series, no matter what happens in today’s Las Vegas test.
“I have contracts with four teams, plus my Super Comp teams,” he said. “Those dragsters are having roll cages, padding, everything changed. There was a lot of good information that came out of this in a short period of time. As of right now, John Medlen and his team are staying intact. We will take all four teams to Vegas out of respect for Eric and his family. We want to be together. We want to stay strong. We will only run three of the teams.
“My life has changed to where it's not just about winning the championship,” he said. “Safety is my number one priority right now. If the cars are not right, then we will not enter the three cars. But we fully intend to. We're going there with the attitude that what we have done will work.
Force said that no decision has been made on the long-term status of Medlen’s former team.
“That's something that I will take up with John Medlen,” he said. “We kept the whole team onboard. Everyone has jobs. We may utilize his car as we get the data for stuff that we want to test. But the truth is, Eric Medlen was my driver. It would take a special individual, if ever, to replace him in that seat. That car may go away, (and it) may not.
“Maybe I’m just waiting for a sign, you know what I mean?”